Alexander Bikbov: ‘The attempt to eliminate power structures in Tatarstan was considered as a dangerous move’

About the admiration of the European elites by the Russian style, the Turks liking Putin’s state apparatus and the training of the bureaucracy through arrests

Alexander Bikbov: ‘The attempt to eliminate power structures in Tatarstan was considered as a dangerous move’ Photo: Oleg Tikhonov

One of the guests of the book festival in Smena was the famous sociologist Alexander Bikbov. The correspondent of Realnoe Vremya in a private conversation asked about political and social movements that take place within the country, as well as outside.

'On the one hand, this is quite successful work of the state apparatus of information and propaganda'

Now in Russia there is a growing discontent of the population due to the crisis. How would you characterize this state of the society?

Now in the Russian society there are several tendencies that can be called competing. On the one hand, this is quite successful work of the state apparatus of information and propaganda, which conceals the social inequalities replacing them by the foreign conflicts. These inequalities in education, medicine, culture, are extremely important for the future but they have not taken a sharp visible form yet. On the other hand, the administrative reform of the public sector, which sets this vector of inequalities, is actively being carried out. What is the reform? In the period from 2008 to 2012, the government began to push the institutions of the public sphere to the market: people who use health services, give their children to study in schools or universities, they have to pay for these rights as for services. It is quite obvious that families with different incomes have not equal access to education, medicine and culture. These two trends are connected and working on the strengthening of the government: on the one hand, an attempt to reduce government expenditures on unprofitable areas, on the other, quite successful imposition of national unity and superiority. From the social point of view, they are in the state of competition or conflict. Now this conflict is still not manifested but in the future it is likely to become more evident. People who will feel the increasing burden of inequalities are likely to raise the question of the price of political loyalty.

The information work and propaganda carried out by the current government are largely aimed in order to substitute the domestic sources of discontent by the external threats. In other words, they use the classical scheme of channeling of discontent into an imaginary enemy

'Ukraine is in the role of the 'dangerous' external enemy'

There is a paradox — the discontent of the population is growing, but according to the surveys, the loyalty to Putin is very high. Is it due to the government propaganda?

Of course, the propaganda works. It is a new phenomenon that did not exist five years ago. As for the discontent with life, you need to understand that this is a complex structure. Let's ask ourselves the question: those who are ready today to accept some difficulties and hardships — are they among those who is satisfied or dissatisfied? More likely, the level of discomfort, suffering caused by a new system of inequality, is not critical yet for most people. In this situation, the information work and propaganda carried out by the current government are largely aimed in order to substitute the domestic sources of discontent by the external threats. In other words, they use the classical scheme of channeling of discontent into an imaginary enemy. In some historical moments, it was state anti-semitism. In other — anti-germanism or anti-britanism. Today we are witnessing a very paradoxical operation from the point of view of Soviet internationalism, which brought up the older generation, or a relatively neutral attitude to the neighboring societies in the 1990s-2000s. Now, Ukraine is in the role of the 'dangerous' external enemy. Obviously, this paradox does not bother people who live in a situation of vented stress. There is one key thing that indicates that this vent is a shaky construction. The loyalty is manifested not in the fact that the majority is ready to support the government by the action but in the fact that they are not ready to argue with it. This is largely due to the uncertainty of the situation — the crisis that is not too dramatic, job losses and declining incomes, but it has nor reach the level of family breakdown, increasing spendings on education and culture, negligible in a short term prospect, as in a long term these changes are not quite obvious yet. That is why we should with great care and attention to characterize the state of mind and feelings of the Russian society. I repeat it again, today the predominant type of loyalty – it is not the willingness to argue but the unwillingness to act.

The formation of not political but rather service loyalty through prison – it is quite unexpected but effective tool which assumes that state structures are better managed in the emergency state rather than in the long-term accumulation of management experience

You have said that the attention of the society is switched to an external enemy. Are there internal enemies? I have remembered the demonstrative punishments for the publication of posts in social networks.

I agree that a part of this work is a red herring. Other actions, such as when law enforcement agencies arrest participants of peaceful civil protest actions — it is not a red herring, it is an attempt of intimidation. In some cases, it is the training of loyal performers. Take a look at extremely revealing figures available from the open sources concerning the arrests of officials, regional leaders, elected politicians or administrators, appointed by the management. These numbers are staggering. According to the expert assessments announced some time ago, about a third of regional and local leaders somehow were arrested or criminal cases were opened on them. And this characterizes the system as a whole. Of course, some of these people can have a criminal past or be real corrupts. But some illustrative cases clearly indicate: they can be just not manageable, 'inflexible' in response to informal instructions from senior management. The attempt to train the officials or political system as a whole with the help of the arrests characterizes its condition as relatively unsteady, based on the lack of loyalty.

However, the formation of not political but rather service loyalty through prison – it is quite unexpected but effective tool which assumes that state structures are better managed in the emergency state rather than during the long-term accumulation of management experience. After all, the officials, including high-ranked and very high-ranked, sooner or later will be in the risk zone and 'removable'. We can assume that the arrests of officials can only please the radical opposition to the government. But if to talk about the logic of the use of prison or isolation as a management tool, it is obvious that it is the detriment for the superstructure of the state apparatus in terms of control of population, the solution of routine tasks. The bureaucratic body, which lives in expectation of very serious sanctions, including arrests, more likely they will be very good at performing some extraordinary tasks rather than routine ones. I think that this may be one of the conditions of relatively weak managing of the apparatus, as well as the managing through the apparatus of the critical issues in the spheres of economy or culture.

In Russia, the role of extreme right-wing party often is performed by the government, demonstrating radicalism, that is sometimes unattainable and even inconceivable of the extreme nationalist movements in Europe

In the interview with Realnoe Vremya, Irina Prokhorova said that the growing exploitation of the theme of patriotism leads to the growth of extremist sentiments in the society. An example — Russian fans in France who even ended up in jail and some of the deputies of the State Duma supported their actions. What do you think about the causes of the radicalizing behavior of the Russians?

There is, certainly, connection. And this is happening not only in Russia but also, for example, in France. The growing popularity of nationalist organizations, in particular of the party of Marine Le Pen, is like a trigger. In the first round of parliamentary elections she gained such a significant number of votes so that the racists and nationalists that exist in France began to publicly express their views, whereas earlier it was considered shameful. It is obvious that the coming to the political, public arena of such radical nationalist movements allows the holders of racist, nationalist, far-right sensitivity to find that they finally have their public representatives. As a result, they become active either in words or in deeds — that is, in violent actions. In Russia, the role of extreme right-wing party often is performed by the government that demonstrates radicalism, that is sometimes unattainable and even inconceivable for the extreme nationalist movements in Europe. We can find several explanations to that in the Russian history and politics. But if to answer your question directly: whether there is a connection, on the one hand, between nationalism, radicalism speeches and laws voiced by the Russian political elite and the government, and, on the other hand, extreme right-wing sentiments and groups, violence in society — yes, of course, there is.

What about patriotism? What will be the result of the tendency of its popularization and why are they popularizing it?

There are several tasks, which that model of mobilization meets pragmatically. One of the big problems of modern political regime is the low level of participation. For example, from 15 to 40% of the population vote in the regional elections. 40% — it is already a very good figure. In the parliamentary and presidential elections there can vote up to 60% of people who has the right to vote. But often this level of participation is described in the same terms: the crisis of representation. Patriotism for management purposes can create sensitivity to the affairs of their society, nation. At first it can be formed at the level of culture of sports fans, in the framework of the interest in the sport, this sublimated form of war. Then it can solve the problem, so to say, of non-specific practical loyalty — a consumer choice, when the consumers prefer domestic products to foreign. In the case when the model develops when it leaves the boundaries of consumer culture, patriotism finds the connection with political loyalty. What does it mean to be a patriot in the political sense? I have already mentioned one key form: not to criticize the government. But also to vote for a party, government or a president, who embodies the values of belonging to the nation. All together this means that patriotically mobilized people maintain loyalty to the existing government and little inclined to raise questions about change. It also means that they approve of the participation of more radical citizens in political projects designed 'from above', for example, in social movements, charity work and volunteering, which are controlled by the state but not independent organizations. Thus, the government can solve two problems at once: the increase of participation and secure inclusion of more radical groups in the activities of political institutions.

What does it mean to be a patriot in the political sense? I have already mentioned one key form: not to criticize the government. But also to vote for a party, government or a president, who embodies the values of belonging to the nation

'A number of researchers sometimes directly compare Putin and Erdogan'

Let's discuss the so-called external 'enemies' — how, in your opinion, do Europe, America assess the actions of Russia on the world political arena?

A part of the political establishment of the Western European countries and the United States perceives Russia's actions critically — as a violation of international law in general, as an attempt of military expansion and involvement of everyone in a situation that verges on war. The other part of political and even cultural establishment, as well as the population, who is not much interested in politics and culture, expresses a fairly high approval of the Russian government. In the Arab countries, this situation is traditional for a decade. Here, love to Russia is determined by anti-Americanism, according to the principle 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. Many residents of the Arab world are convinced that Russia is acting as a true enemy of the United States. However, similar principle started to conquer Europe two years ago, where the model is slightly more complex. For example, Germany, where pro-Russian, pro-Putin sentiments have a very significant weight on the public stage. On the one hand, it may be dictated by the same reasons as in the Arab world: Russia is perceived as the main rival of America, despite the fact that, from the point of view of reforms of the social sphere, it is absolutely wrong. But on the international stage of diplomatic mission the opposition is drawn very clearly. On the other hand, some European elites admire the style of Russian leadership. A part of the Italian political establishment, a part of French admire the techniques of power used by the Russian leadership. It is no coincidence that former European presidents such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi were friends of Vladimir Putin. At the root of their friendship there was not a simple affective connection but quite pragmatic interest in the technologies that are used in Russia to strengthen personal influence.

What about the Arab countries? Erdogan has recently congratulated the President of the Russian Federation with Day of Russia.

The relations between the two government apparatus, between Russia and Turkey, developed quite organically before the recent participation of Turkey in the Syrian war. Moreover, a number of researchers who study the modern Turkish society, sometimes directly compare Putin and Erdogan. Not by their professional biographies but rather by the principles of the organization that they bring to governance. Here, the basis for some kind of similarity and mutual sympathy exists at the level of structures of the state apparatus. So, I would say that the tension, the conflict that has arisen between the two governments, is situational. They have more similarities rather than differences, including in relation to the freedoms, non-governmental organizations, civil sector accountable to the authorities. In some cases, the reaction of the authorities to civil society activity in Turkey was tougher than in Russia. In this sense, the Russian government had reason to envy the Turkish authorities, as well as the European were jealous of the Russian. In general, it is similar models of population control: on the one hand, neither in Russia nor in Turkey they do not repress private initiative and do not completely deprive of political freedoms, and on the other – they are trying to re-subordinate the vast majority of economic and civil activity to the new complex of state-private partnership.

The weakening of regional authorities – it is an attempt to make the state apparatus completely loyal, trained and responsive to the instructions from the federal center. The fact that Tatarstan has kept the position of President demonstrates the specific strength of the region in the internal state hierarchies

The last question is about the abolition of the national republics. Now all over Russia the presidents of republics have been canceled, remained only in Tatarstan. What do you think about it and why, in your opinion, is it necessary?

How strange it may sound, I believe that this fact can be explained by the same scheme, which I have told about, speaking about the training of officials through the arrests. The weakening of regional authorities – it is an attempt to make the state apparatus completely loyal, trained and responsive to the instructions from the federal center. The fact that Tatarstan has kept the position of President demonstrates the specific strength of the region in the internal state hierarchies. The attempt to eliminate its own structures of power in Tatarstan, probably, was considered as a dangerous move that is associated with the growth of social tension. Probably, to other regions such calculation was made not in their favour.

What do you think about the abolition of the national republics?

In the current situation, I see this as a threat, in the same way as in the elimination of other forms of regional autonomy. Even if it is not independence in the sense of political freedoms or rights but purely administrative phenomenon. The thing is that the current scheme not only anticipates possible political tensions between the regional apparatus of the bureaucracy and federal ones, not only social explosions in some regions. But, in the first place, it is based on the economic calculation. This is an attempt to centralize the budget and the flow of taxes that must go to the federal center. In the situation of economic crisis it makes the regions even poorer. I guess the costs for the regions in this situation will grow.

Mariya Gorozhaninova. Photo: Oleg Tikhonov